My third visit to Heirloom, tucked away in the quiet Coulwood/Mountain Island Lake community of Charlotte, North Carolina, included a negroni crafted with foraged mushroom bitters, fish bacon, and vegetarian fried “hen” (as in hen of the woods mushrooms prepared like fried chicken, that quite frankly could fool either a vegetarian or a carnivore).
“Dedicated” is often a word used to describe Chef Clark Barlowe’s commitment to food sustainability and foraging. For three years, he lobbied the state of North Carolina for the legalization of foraging so that he could serve wild mushrooms—and last year, he became the first chef to possess a license to do just that. Barlowe forages not to be cool, but because he’s wildly passionate about keeping food as locally sourced as possible—in an effort to pave the path for eating more sustainably in his native land.
He makes his way over to my table, with a smug grin on his face. “You’re up to something, aren’t you?” I ask him. “Yellowjacket soup,” he says, smiling from ear to ear. He rolls up his sleeves, exposing his fungi field guide tattoo sleeve, waxing on about this so-called flying insect soup recipe he’s been losing sleep over.
The idea sprouted by way of chef Sean Brock posting a centuries-old Cherokee recipe on Twitter. “I'm dying to try this,” Brock wrote. “I've been reading about this tradition for years. This is from a book on Cherokee cooking of the Appalachians. Has anyone ever had this?!”
The recipe was last written down around 1860, and Barlowe took a quick interest in the idea of recreating it. “I was teaching a foraging class six months later and we came across a yellowjacket nest right across the street from Heirloom,” he says. It was kismet. Geared up in bee suits, Barlowe, his sous chef, and his chef de cuisine crossed the street.
“15 seconds after we stuck the shovel in the hole they were swarming us, all over our legs,” he says. “They knew exactly where to sting us—all over our socks.” The team surrendered and fled back to the restaurant to regroup, brainstorming how to conquer the wasps, when a liquid nitrogen lightbulb appeared in Barlowe’s head. Across the street, take two, armed with liquid nitrogen and duct-taped socks, the team successfully retrieved the nest. “It looked like a scene from Lord of the Rings or something because the whole ground was smoking,” he noted, of the basketball-sized nest coming out of the earth.
A hotel pan’s worth of combs was cleaned and rinsed in cold water to remove dirt; unhatched larvae and wasps were separated. The process, Barlowe notes, is thorough; his team used toothbrushes to delicately brush the grime away. “My cooks are used to this—I bring back crazy things all the time,” he says jokingly. “We sautéed onions and garlic, added in the papery, waxy nest and unhatched larvae, added water, cooked it for an hour and pureed it in a blender,” he says. “It’s an interesting color; it’s not a pretty soup,” he notes, of its grey/unappetizing brownish hue. “It was mostly survival food, they knew they could harvest and store it.”
I tracked down Tyson Sampson, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and an avid wildcrafter, to further discuss yellowjacket soup. Native to Whittier, North Carolina, Sampson and his family members have some memories of it. “My great aunt and I agreed that the reason there weren’t more stories about yellowjacket soup [within our family] is because they had enough food,” he explains. “Even though the family was poor, they had a cow, they had pigs, they had a garden. They had a lot of game and ate rabbits and squirrels quite a bit.”
His great-aunt went on to note that the family was not that desperate at the time.”We always had flour,” she clarified. And besides, extracting nests wasn’t an easy task: "Grandpa had a Purple Heart from WWII but he had no bee suit—just pure skill!”
The nest itself gives an interesting texture to the stew, like that of a pureed chowder, but the most common question Barlowe receives is “what does it taste like?” Diners have described it as everything from having an earthy taste to being similar to shellfish—or reminiscent of mushrooms or black beans. “I truly believe it’s a unique flavor that our palates are struggling to try to put in some category for a frame of reference,” he adds. Sampson translated the Cherokee syllabary from the recipe, stating that “S-ka-v oo-ga-ma” reads as yellowjacket gravy. After hearing Barlowe’s description of its texture and appearance, it makes perfect sense.
“We finish with a little olive oil or some kind of fat, the same way the recipe called for grease,” he says, along with a briny element such as Jarrett Bay Oysters, trout roe or clams. “That seems to mimic the flavor of the soup for me and it gives people a baseline of what it should taste like.” He served it a few times at Heirloom—until a health inspector who followed the chef on Instagram politely relayed that insects, when served in restaurants, must come from an approved source.
The leftovers were served at a Carolina Farm Trust fundraiser dinner, where Barlowe received a mixture of feedback from intrigued guests. “I heard it tasted like everything from black beans to mushrooms to clams, but truthfully, it tastes like a yellowjacket—a flavor unto itself.”
Note: The extraction of the yellowjacket nest took place in a Charlotte city park; the wasps would have been eventually exterminated. Yellowjackets also accomplish very little pollination and should not be confused with worker bees.